“I lived in Kabul for two years as a child, right before the Russians invaded in 1979,” writes journalist Carla Power, “I remember it as an ochre city smelling of roses, wood smoke and sewage. Parakeets sang in the bazaars, and kids flew bright pink and green paper kites from the dusty hills ringing the city.”
Not anymore. Much of Kabul is in ruins and the Islamic Taliban rulers have banned singing birds. They’ve banned kites too.
Invite a foreigner over for tea? Take a friend’s photograph? Then Taliban edicts have been broken; it is sometimes difficult to know what not to do, as the edicts change week by week.
Television and music are banned. TV sets and video recorders are displayed on telegraph poles. Police checkpoints are draped with streamers – the magnetic tape from seized cassettes.
Religious police from the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice carry whips made of leather or electrical cable. These religious enforcers roar around Kabul in jeeps and trucks – as they approach men pluck at their beards to prove they are the required length. The Taliban demand each man has a beard at least the length of a fist.
But the symbol of the Islamic militias war against Kabul’s godlessness is the Taliban’s war against women. Women are banned from almost all work and must wear the all-covering veil, the burka. Girls over eight are forbidden to attend schools.
One of the most telling stories comes from a foreign aid worker who witnessed a discussion about medical treatment for women. A group of Taliban leaders had the role of a gynaecologist explained to them. Their reaction? To giggle behind their hands, embarrassed like little boys. These are simple country people, organised into a political force, armed to the teeth and hardened after many years of fighting.
Two years after overrunning the capital Kabul the Taliban control most of Afghanistan. How have such people come to power in Afghanistan at the end of the twentieth century?
Afghanistan has been traumatised by a series of wars which began slightly more than twenty years ago, in April 1978. In that month an air force and army coup brought down the Daud government, which itself had been put in place by a previous coup five years earlier.
The new government declared itself devoutly Muslim and insisted it was not “Communist” (i.e. pro-USSR) but was simply nationalist, concerned to develop the country.
Indeed, the key question was: who would bring Afghanistan into the twentieth century? The country, which until 1973 had been ruled by a monarchy, had not even a single railway line. Only one in ten males were literate, and the rate for women was even worse. There were one or two million nomads among a population of perhaps 16 million.
There was a small working class in Kabul. But in the countryside, where more than 85% of the people lived, 5% of the landowners owned nearly half the land. Afghanistan had never been knitted together by a national economy. There existed over twenty ethnic groups, and they had a long tradition of resistance to central authority.
Since the mid-1950s the USSR had developed Afghanistan as a client state, providing aid and training (and influencing) the officer corps of the armed forces. The officers - a part of Afghanistan influenced by the modern world - saw a “Russian road” for Afghan development - using the state to build the economy up and force social progress.
Many of the army and air force officers were recruited to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), a pro-USSR party: a sort of “communist” party. When the coup took place in 1978 the PDP – this small, otherwise isolated organisation with possibly as few as 2,000 members – became the government party.
The PDP decreed an end to usury and the cancellation of peasant debts; they decreed moves towards equality for women; they legislated land reform. But they could not carry their programme out.
Workers’ Action (a forerunner of Workers’ Liberty) explained: “Everywhere and in everything [the government] proved to have neither popular support, nor, alternatively, the strength and resources to manipulate from the top and to wean people away from the age-old network of dependence on landlords, usurers and priests (often the same people). They had neither a banking system to offer instead of the system around the usurers, nor an agricultural supply system to carry through the land reform. Their efforts from on high alienated the people.” (WA no. 182, magazine format, 1980)
While arguing against absurd fantasies of some of the revolutionary left (in particular the American Socialist Workers Party) that the coup was in fact a “revolution” Workers’ Action spelt out a socialist attitude towards the PDP: “Afghan socialists would have had to give critical support to specific measures of the state capitalist [PDP] regime, but in no sense could have supported the regime as such. It would have been necessary to maintain class independence... and expose the brutal military-bureaucratic methods of the regime as both counter-productive in relation to the reforms and expressive of the class-character of the regime... Socialists would have directed their line of fire against the reaction and in that sense only would have ‘supported’ the PDP regime.” (WA no. 166, 9 February, 1980)
In the first weeks after the April coup the government used napalm against its own villagers, making up to 400,000 people refugees. Pakistan, China and a number of Muslim states funded and armed the reactionary, countryside-based Islamic opposition to the PDP. The PDP turned in on itself, ripping itself apart in faction fights. Afghanistan became seriously destabilised. And at the end of December 1979 the Russians invaded to prop up a client regime and to prevent a hostile government taking over on a southern border of the USSR.
The USSR made use of America’s relative weakness after defeat in Vietnam, and the invasion broke the post-World War 2 stand-off – the USSR’s invasion had breached the rules the Superpowers had played by for the previous 30 years. The US – alarmed – began massive funding, arming and political support for the reactionary Muslim opposition.
Shamefully most of the world’s revolutionary left backed the Russian war of subjugation (beyond ourselves the exceptions were the French group Lutte Ouvriere and the British SWP). They did so using one or both of the following arguments:
1. That not to back the Russian occupation would mean a victory for the right-wing, US-backed, Muslim reactionaries and the massacre of PDP supporters;
2. That Russian society is post-capitalist, some form of workers’ state, and the expansion of this state is to be welcomed. The Russians will force through “progress” and build industry, creating a working class and so preparing the socialist future.
Polemicising against Ted Grant’s Militant, who backed the Russian war, Workers’ Action (no. 182) responded: “it is impossible to work out a serious independent working class political assessment on the basis of yes or no to such gun-to-the-head questions as: do you want the right-wing Muslim reactionaries to triumph?...
“In any situation where a large revolutionary working class movement does not exist, the gun-to-head appeal to responsibility, humanitarianism, and lesser evilism can almost always be counterposed to an independent working class political assessment...
“If the Russians withdraw [there may be] a massacre of PDP supporters. That would be a tragedy. But it cannot follow that because of this Marxist socialists should abandon their programmatic opposition to the expansion of the area under Kremlin control, or should abandon the idea that the consolidation of a Stalinist regime in Afghanistan would be a defeat for the Afghan working class...
“We cannot abandon independent working class politics for the lesser evil - the PDP...
“[Militant influences workers to take up the role] of cheerleaders for the Progressive Stalinists in Afghanistan...
”Militant insists that the proper role for social militants is to line up firmly with one of the international blocs...
“Militant is supporting the implied ‘promise’ of nationalisations and agrarian reform to be carried out by a totalitarian state which has imposed itself by force, against the resistance of the peoples of Afghanistan... The Stalinist Revolution will impose a savagely repressive regime, which will destroy and continually uproot any elements of a labour movement.”
Militant’s Alan Woods [now, like Ted Grant, in Socialist Appeal] argued that the opposition to the Russians were “’dark masses’, sunk in the gloom of barbarism... The task of dragging the Afghan countryside out of the slough of primeval backward and into the 20th century would be formidable, even with the correct leadership... the Russian bureaucracy and their Afghan supporters are, in effect, carrying out the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution.” (Militant, July 1980).
For Woods views of the Afghan people – or “dark masses” – were more-or-less irrelevant. They were the subjects of history.
Our tendency, despite – at that time – holding to the “deformed and degenerated workers’ states” theory had always defended the rights of workers to fight and organise, of dissidents to speak out in the Stalinist states, and of oppressed peoples to fight for national freedom against Stalinism. We asked: “Why should it not be what the majority of the peoples of Afghanistan want that occurs? Why can't this area wait until the majority of its population decides to fight for social change.” In other words: backward peoples should have the right to self-determination too! People have the right not to be forcibly “dragged out of backwardness”.
To the “bloodbath if the Russians leave” argument we replied: “if the Russians stay there will be (and is) a bloodbath.” And truth is that in the period of Russian occupation, from Xmas 1979 to Gorbachev's tired, final withdrawal in 1989, the Russian war devastated the country without ever coming close to quashing the resistance. Military experts calculated that complete conquest would have required up to three times the 100,000 of troops that the USSR had committed.
Nevertheless, their brutal imperialist war of conquest against the Afghans left one million dead, 5 million refugees in neighbouring countries, and half the villages destroyed. They had used exactly the same ‘pacification’ techniques as the Americans employed ten years before in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos – napalm , indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations, crop burning, terror. Afghanistan was the USSR’s Vietnam.
And just as the Americans bombing and pulverisation of eastern Cambodia had directly led to the destruction of many of the existing structures of society, to militarisation and to chaos, and to the rise of the ultra-nationalist, racist, genocidal brand of Stalinism/Maoism, the Khmer Rouge, the Russian war bolstered and strengthened the most extreme, no-compromise wing of the fundamentalists.
The Khmer Rouge were a rabid creation of the US, albeit a monster with roots in the local nationalist and in Stalinist traditions. The Taliban regime is a product of the Russian-made mayhem of the 1980s, but they too are shaped by the Afghan past and the global rise of Muslim fundamentalism.
As Gorbachev's army left Afghanistan the power of the Soviet ruling class, its hold on Eastern Europe, its standing in the world had withered and weakened. The Russians left their Afghan friends to face the consequences.
Our paper, Socialist Organiser, Workers Action’s successor, commented on the situation: “When the overwhelming majority of the people of Afghanistan fought to drive out the Russians, they were entitled to the support of all socialists.
“Now that the Russians have gone, the question is posed differently. The question now is what attitude we take to a civil war in Afghanistan – a civil war likely to be in large part a war between the cities and the countryside, between the men and women of the towns, with their relatively modern outlook, and the viciously reactionary and medieval forces which have been the main organisers of the Afghan resistance to Russian imperialism. The question has to be posed like that, because no working class exists in Afghanistan strong enough to transform the situation.” (“Afghanistan: defend the cities!”, 22 February 1989.)
The nature of the war had reverted to the period of 1978-9, before the Russian invasion.
The civil war between the regime the Russians had left in place and the fundamentalist militias lasted until 1992 giving way to intra-fundamentalists fighting. The Taliban over-ran the capital in 1996.
Now the Taliban rule over Kabul like an occupying force – the revenge of the countryside over the town, the revenge of the past over a brutal modernity.